Preparing for Greatness: The Three 2013 National Championship Coaches’ Game Plans

Sept. 03, 2014, 11:29 a.m. (ET)

Preparing for Greatness: The Three 2013 National Championship Coaches’ Game Plans
by Kathleen Harte Simone

Bertie Landes, Shippensburg University Head Coach

We all marvel at the skill of a champion forward; her stick work so polished that she makes eliminating a triple team seem effortless. We gasp at the speed and agility of a champion midfielder as she navigates the field with authority. And we are star struck by a champion defender; the essence of power and poise. We’re in awe. We applaud the champion field hockey players' remarkable athleticism and acknowledge what it takes to get there: extra training sessions, countless hours in the gym, and that eye-of-the-tiger focus. But behind every champion and every championship team is a champion coach, an extraordinary leader who teaches, inspires and leads her players to greatness.

Take a behind-the-scenes look into the locker room, huddle and minds of the three 2013 champion coaches. We caught up with Nancy Stevens, who led her UConn Huskies to one Division I National Championship, Bertie Landes who steered her Shippensburg Red Raiders to the university’s first-ever DII National Championship, and Nicky Pearson who guided her Bowdoin Bears to four DIII National Titles.

All three coaches share some likeness including their extensive list of coaching records and accolades as well as their steadfast dedication to their student athletes. Differently, they each have unique and obviously effective coaching styles and approaches to regular and post-season play.

Stevens compared entering the Final Four to how trainers prepare their horses to run on Derby Day – rested, fresh, and ready to compete. “I always find it interesting that we actually do less preparation for the NCAA games because all the hard work is done earlier in the season. Building the team during the early and middle parts of the season is an arduous task that requires countless hours of film study and practice. When we reach the NCAA Tournament, we reduce the amount of time we have our players study film and their practices are shortened.”

Landes’ team prepared for each game with a keen eye on their opponent and a constant focus on fundamentals. “We watch film of o
ur opponent and decide what their strengths and weaknesses are. I'm a basic skills coach.  I love to teach the girls the proper way to do the skills and then put it together for team attack and team defense. The game of hockey is very simple; it all breaks down into 2 v 1, 3 v 2 and 3 v 1.”

Pearson, however, stays focused on her team’s assets, not the opponents’ weaknesses. “I try to approach every game the same to avoid having a ‘yo-yo
’ team that gets up for specific games. We respect our opponents but try to keep the focus on us and what our strengths are. Our preparations are the same for the first game of the year until the last.”

Nancy Stevens, University of Connecticut Head Coach 

Of all three coaches, it is Landes who distinguishes her 2013 squad as possessing the qualities that propelled the team to the national title. “The leadership of the nine seniors and their sacrifice of their egos for the good of the team (set the team apart). Their work ethic was excellent; they wanted to be challenged every practice. This team came together quicker than any team I have coached and they had a confidence in themselves and their teammates that was so rewarding.”

Differently, Stevens views her 2013 team as a team that capitalized on opportunity, a skill that often separates the good from the great. “To be honest, there was very little that distinguished our 2013 team from previous teams I've coached.  Our program has reached the Final Four four times in the past eight years and each of those teams was special in its own way.  This team was able to win two more games and that resulted in the National Championship.  For that to happen, our attack corners had to be terrific, which they were, and our goalkeeping had to be stellar, which it was.”

Pearson, however, veers away from zoning in that X-factor. “… I always tell my team that I start a new job in August and we will only be together for one year and that each team is unique and each year is special. We try to stay away from comparisons. I believe history has its uses and disadvantages and we try to use it only for positive gains.”

Mental preparation as well as drawing on the leadership and motivational skills of key players and staff is an integral part of each coach’s success. Stevens, who holds a Master’s Degree in Sports Psychology, has a particular interest in performance imagery. “Mental preparation throughout the season is a key factor to winning a championship.  We do our best to approach every film session, strength and conditioning workout and daily practice with a champion’s mentality. It would be foolish to think you could just show up and play like a champion on the final Sunday of a tournament.” Stevens added that the team does more imagery and relaxation techniques during the NCAA Tournament. “This helps the team play free, despite the pressure to win the games that define your season and your career.”

Motivation comes from various people in Stevens’ opinion. “We entrust a good deal of team motivation to our senior class each year; they will set the tenor and tone of each practice and their voices will be heard most clearly. If we have a player who has a gift for inspiring her teammates, then we will empower her to do just that.” Stevens also acknowledged that her 2013 captains were outstanding. “When teammates see their leaders laying it all out there on the field, they find that inspiring.  It raises the level of everyone's play.” In addition, Stevens’ assistant coach, Cheri Herr, compiles a highlight video, with music, of great plays made by the team to play before key games.

Landes regularly reads inspiring stories to her team; the lessons, she says, motivate her players for games and life. Landes also stressed the value of everyone having a voice. “Each of my assistants and each player feel comfortable to say what is on their heart which helps them and in turn helps our team. A junior stepped forward at the national tournament with a motivational talk before our semi-final game and championship game.”

“I try to create an environment where every player feels valued and respected, where their input is important and I hope they feel ownership,” shared Pearson. “I view motivation as a joint effort between the athlete and coach.” At the 2013 Championship game my assistant actually gave most of the pre-game speech. She had won a championship so who better to offer advice and inspire them.”

Pre-game speeches are an area of great difference between these coaching giants. Pearson isn’t reluctant to share the pre-game talk with her assistant or alumni, which she has done before Homecoming games, and has even shown motivational speeches. Regardless of how or who delivers the pep talk, Pearson is deliberate in helping the players enter the game with clear minds and full hearts. “I don’t like to overload them with tactically information because we should have taken care of that in practice. My main objective is to make sure the players are focused and have let go of everything that has happened during the day.”

Stevens was quick to share her thoughts that pep talks are great for movies and rarely have a lasting effect on a team’s performance. “My comments to the team are made after considerable thought.  We discuss performance goals before each game and review tactics in detail.  Each player needs to have a clear vision of how we want the game to go for us that day. Together we also need a collective vision such as overcoming adversity, celebrating your greatness, or playing for a teammate. Players want to play for more than just winning; they want a narrative that captures their imagination and sparks their soul.”

Landes’ style is more relaxed. “I basically talk off the cuff although I do write some thoughts at times” For the championship game, “(My assistant coach and) I were confident and knew we did everything we could to prepare the team for the game.”

On game day of the Finals, the three coaches and teams were busy preparing their own way.  While Bowdoin’s team was blaring St. Elmo’s Fire in the locker room, Pearson was getting fired up herself. “It definitely starts with a strong cup of coffee,” Pearson said with a smile. After reviewing game tape one last time and reviewing notes, she joined the team for a pre-game meal and headed into the locker room 70 minutes before game time, just like every other game, for a pre-game talk before the team headed to the field for a 35-40 minute warm-up.

Landes and her assistant coach took a walk along Virginia Beach before boarding the bus that the team parents had decorated; they formed an arch for players to walk through and cheered loudly. Landes followed the team into the locker room, reviewed the game strategies, and “I told them told them how proud I was of them and that all we had to do was to continue to play together as a team.”

Stevens’ game-day prep, as always, began with physical activity to free her mind, followed by a methodical practice. “I spend as much time as possible visualizing how I want the game to proceed.  Of course, it seldom plays out that way!  More importantly, I run all the offensive corner scenarios in my mind, playing out our corner options against the anticipated defensive schemes of the opponent.  This may actually take me several days, but I run it one more time on game day.  I need to see each outcome clearly, before I will commit to putting it in the game plan.  I will then script the first six attack corners for the game.  The key is to then stick with those scripted corners for as long as possible during the game, because those decisions were made outside of the pressures of the game. During our run to the 2013 National Championship, we scored on a corner in overtime to win at the NCAA Regional and all three goals at the Final Four were from attack corners.”While Stevens is preparing, the UConn Huskies had their music cranked so loudly in the locker room, it could be heard throughout the building. About 90 minutes before game time, the team met to review a printed game plan before heading to the field for warm-up an hour before the game. “This is a very special time for the team.  They are preparing to go into battle with the people they care most about at their side. It is a bond that is difficult to find outside of athletics.  There is a nervous excitement of shared anticipation for the day ahead.  Game Day is the best day of the year.”

Nancy Stevens, Bertie Landes and Nicky Pearson – as different as their styles may be – all set the tone, inspired their players, and prepared their teams for greatness and the National Title. They, too, are true champions. We are in awe, are star stuck, and we applaud them.

Kathleen Harte Simone is a freelance writer, founder and editor of
   Nicky Pearson, Bowdoin College Head Coach